How Distillation Became The Water Of Life

This article originally appeared in National Geographic Assignment.

At Charbay one immediately gets a sense of place. And a sense of purpose. Perhaps it’s the giant antique copper stills that stand guard in front of the building, or perhaps it’s the long winding road to get there, or the quiet isolation, or perhaps it’s because that trickling sound was actually brandy, not yet aged, coming from the still. A clear brandy which the French call “eau de vie” or in English “water of life”.

“Distilling is the very essence of life on this planet,” says the elder Karakasevic as we all raise a glass of his deep golden brandy. Originally it was clear, like its trickling cousin behind me, but now it has turned color by nearly three decades in an oak barrel.

Karakasevic goes on to liken the process of distillation to our planet’s very respiration. Rain falls to the Earth, collects as water, he says, which in turn evaporates into vapor, which then condenses and falls back to Earth as water again. It is the cycle that begets the basis for all life on this planet.

An audacious statement, to be sure, one must tread lightly when they enter the realm of the gods-life giving and all that. But one taste of the embodiment of that toast, that 27 year-old brandy, and one quickly gets the impression of the ambrosia of the immortals. At the same time one marvels at the business complexities of creating a product like that. Produced 27 years ago it is only now ready for market. Couple that with the intricate complexities of liquor laws (one can only taste Charbay’s brandy at the winery on Spring Mountain-you would have to go to their distillery in Ukiah to taste their other spirits), and you begin to grasp the difficulties facing small distillers.

“[Distilling] is more art than product,” says Marko Karakasevic. “We are not trying to take over the world and be the biggest distillery ever. We are here to make the best spirits possible, and make spirits that other distillers and distilleries have never thought of before, anywhere in the world.”

The younger Karakasevic began distilling when he was ten years old, continuing the tradition of 13 generations of distillers in his family. Now 38, he has distilled almost every type of major spirit; whiskey, rum, brandy, tequila and vodka, all still made by Charbay.

“Consumers can come to Charbay Distillery and meet the distiller,” he says. “There’s a family behind the product, not a marketing company.”

Charbay was one of the very first commercially viable small scale distilleries to spring up in Northern California. The release of their line of fresh fruit flavored vodkas just happened to coincide with the beginning rumbles of the so-called “bar chef” phenomena that began in the late 1990s. As bartenders looked to improve their craft and deliver ever better tasting cocktails they soon realized that if they started with a better tasting base spirit, they wouldn’t have to waste valuable energy trying to cover up an inferior product’s flaws. All the fresh mandarins in the world won’t make bad tasting vodka taste better. Palatable perhaps, but not particularly good. Great tasting vodka, however, needs only a slight tweak-if any at all-to make a truly great tasting drink.

As San Francisco rose to cocktail Mecca status, distilleries soon began springing up all around the Bay Area; Germain-Robin (another of the very firsts) in Ukiah, Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, St. George and Hangar One Spirits in Alameda, Old World Spirits in Belmont and the Distillery No. 209, also in San Francisco.

Unknown to the general public, many of the hundreds of liquor bottles on a back bar shelf are owned or managed by fewer than 10 major liquor companies. With this wellspring of smaller craft distillers, comes the tricky question. What actually constitutes a “craft distiller”?

“Craft distillers can take the time and care to hand craft quality products that are unique to the market place,” says Arne Hillesland, distiller of 209 gin and 209 kosher gin. “Much like fine wines, they genuinely reflect the style of the distiller and the locale in which they are produced.”

For an industry that has a small bible of liquor regulations, that is only part of the explanation.

“I’m not completely certain that we quite fit into the ‘craft distillers’ category,” says Allison Evanow, Founder and CEO of Square One Organic Spirits based in Novato California. “We definitely fit into the ‘independent spirits’ category,” she says. “But as the craft distillers movement grows, the lines between craft and independent distillers are becoming more and more clear.”

Square One produces under 50,000 gallons as a brand, and contracts the distillation of their spirits to a distillery (Distilled Resources, Inc. in Idaho) which produces over 50,000 gallons total, which convinces Evanow that “boutique spirits” is perhaps a better definition for her product.

“I completely understand why a lot of these new craft distillers are keen to find a clear definition of what is ‘craft’ and what is not,” she says. “There are far too many independent brands that are indeed nothing more than bulk spirits with a label slapped on them or poorly made ‘concept’ brands produced by large contract distillers and the craft guys want to be sure to stay clear of them,” she says.

“But there are a lot of the ‘indy’ guys out there like Square One,” adds Evanow. “Who are doing truly custom distillation, but do not have their own stills and/or interest in becoming the master distiller.”

Both types of producers apparently have roles in the development of this new boutique spirits category.

“Boutique brands are generally very small in production, in many cases handcrafted, family owned and produced on their property, says Kurt Charles, Managing Partner of the Kentfield Marketing Group (a specialty alcoholic beverage company that consults, brokers and incubates small, fledgling brands including both Square One vodka and 209 gin). “Mass produced spirits are just that, big manufacturers who produce well over 10,000 cases and up to a million or more.”

Consider this, Skyy vodka (once also a Bay Area upstart but now owned by Italian consortium Gruppo Campari) sold 3.1 million cases last year, more than all the Bay Area “craft” and “boutique” distillers combined.

“Frankly, it doesn’t matter if you distill [spirits] in a bathtub,” says Charles. “As long as the final product meets all of the government regulations.”

“The problem is when [distillers] say they are something and they are not,” he adds. “Everyone meets the minimum [legal] requirements, but in most cases meeting the minimum does not produce a premium product. The products we represent must substantially exceed the minimum standards or we would not represent them.”

As the world of the bar chefs and their craft cocktails continues to grow, so too will the world of the craft/boutique distillers, the very base for their creations. All of which will leave the general public with the best of all possible worlds: more and better products to choose from.

“Craft distillers”, “bar chefs”, “craft cocktails”, and “boutique spirits” are probably not things that Miles Karakasevic, and his then 10 year-old son, Marko, could ever have imagined when their first drops of brandy trickled off that still at Charbay some 27 years ago. They were just carrying on a family tradition, something they continue to do to this day. To many like them distillates really are the “water of life”.